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Eye On Boise

Archive for June 2009

Over-warm lawmakers wrap up day-long meeting

The legislative task force looking for funding for state parks and ISP has wrapped up its meeting for the day and tentatively set its next meeting for Aug. 11; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, warned, “Right now it seems like the only solution is a tax increase, and I suspect that’s not going to pass in the House. So I would like to see us be more broad.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “It does have to pass both the House and the Senate. That’s partly why we’re into this pickle.” Among the agenda items for the next meeting: A report from the state Tax Commission. The panel will hold its next meeting at the Idaho Supreme Court’s basement meeting room - because today’s meeting quickly became a roast-fest in Boise’s 90-plus summer temperatures. The Capitol Annex meeting room has window air conditioners, but the units are too noisy to run during meetings, and were operated only during breaks. Additional meetings are likely to follow in September and October.

Parks warn of big impacts if gas taxes lost

If the Idaho State Parks & Recreation Department got no replacement for the gas tax money it’s now receiving for off-road recreation, it’d lay off 10 people and endanger programs that now result in grants to local government entities - $32 million over the last 20 years - and pay for everything from  snowmobile trail grooming to boat ramps to trails to fixing roads and bridges at state parks. Dave Ricks, acting state parks director, told a legislative task force today that tourism is Idaho’s third-largest industry, and brings $3 billion a year into the state’s rural economies. The loss of recreation funding would impact that, he said.  

Idaho has its first 2009 case of West Nile Virus

Idaho now has its first case of West Nile Virus of the season, a Bonneville County man in his 70s, who has been hospitalized. It’s a big year for mosquitoes, which carry the virus, and state Health & Welfare officials are advising Idahoans to take precautions. Click below to read the full H&W press release.

Two Idahoans confirmed to federal posts

Dick Rush and Wally Hedrick have been confirmed by the Obama Administration as Idaho’s new USDA farm service agency director and state director for rural development, respectively. Both were nominated for those posts by Congressman Walt Minnick, Idaho’s highest-ranking official who is of the same party as the administration, Democratic. “Richard Rush has a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing our rural communities and will help build on the Obama Administration’s efforts to rebuild and revitalize rural America,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. And on Hedrick’s appointment, he said, “Wallace Hendrick will be an important advocate on behalf of rural communities throughout the state and help administer the valuable programs and services provided by the USDA that can enhance their economic success.” Yes, the USDA apparently added an N to Hedrick’s last name.

ISP funding ideas: Raise taxes, fees

The Idaho State Police has some suggestions for how to make up the loss of roughly $20 million from its budget when gas tax funds the ISP now receives shift to highways in a year: Raise vehicle registration fees by $5, to generate $8 million; raise driver’s license fees by $5 to generate $1.7 million; place a surcharge on tires, batteries, vehicle and other transportation-related items, to generate up to $13 million; charge a half-percent fee on all new car sales to raise $10 million; raise transfer, new and out-of-state title fees by $5 to generate $2.7 million; and/or tap into the state’s general fund whenever other funding sources fall short. One catch: Some of those fees, including those for driver’s licenses and titles, already were increased by lawmakers this year.

ISP: ‘We would not be patrolling the highways’

If the Idaho State Police had to just absorb the funding cut when it loses gas tax funds a year from tomorrow, ISP would have to lay off 204 people, Lt. Col. Kevin Johnson just told a legislative task force. “On the patrol side we would have to cut 123 officers, that’s just troopers.” The remainder of the layoffs would be sergeants, lieutenants, captains and dispatch personnel. “That would leave us with a small amount of people to cover the county roads and federal and state highways,” he said. “It would not be enough, obviously, to patrol. … We would essentially not be patrolling the highways.” Currently, ISP patrols the roads with about 35 troopers per day, he said. “Mostly, we’re covering the highways right now from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.”

ISP budget faces big hole

The hole that looms to be filled in the Idaho State Police budget is actually larger than some may think, a legislative panel heard this morning. The fiscal year 2010 budget gives the ISP $15.7 million from the state highway fund, which largely comes from gas taxes; that will go away on July 1, 2010. But Rep.  Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, noted, “We’ve gone down with both the parks and ISP budget the last two or three years. … Are we going to deal with what they’ve lost, or are we going to deal with what’s currently there today?” If the current gas tax funds are replaced for both agencies, he said, there’s “still a shortfall.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “An excellent question … I don’t know the answer to it. … The language in the resolution calls for us to replace the funds that were there, so that’s our first priority.”

Legislative budget analyst Dick Burns told the task force that the highway fund money available to ISP has fallen significantly short, prompting the Legislature to make up part of the shortfall from an ISP personnel fund and part from state general funds. “The revenues will not be there to support that,” Burns told the panel. In fiscal year 2009, he said, “We supplied over $3 million in general fund money to purchase cars and so forth. … To do it right may require in the area of $20 million to $21 million.” Cameron commented, “We see a little bit of the depths of the problem.”

‘Legislature chose to renege on the deal’

When the legislative task force ended up with time for some comments from the public this morning, off-road enthusiast Tom Crimmins of Hayden Lake was the first to step to the podium. “I recognize that you have a difficult task and challenge ahead of you - I wish you well,” he told the lawmakers. He said recreationists look forward to working with the lawmakers, but they’re none too happy. “Beginning in 1963, the recreational community agreed up-front … that giving out a bunch of $10 and $12 refunds cost the state more than it should,” he said. Those were refunds for gas tax paid on gas that never got burned on the roads, because it went into recreational, off-road use for boats, snowmobiles, dirt bikes or other off-road vehicles. So recreationists agreed to pay the tax, as long as the portion they paid was designated for trails. “Now it appears that the Legislature has chosen to renege on their part of the deal,” Crimmins told the panel. That puts recreationists in the position of either trying to get that decision reversed - his preference - or asking for their refunds back.

“I understand the Legislature’s reluctance to raise fuel taxes in this economic climate,” Crimmins told the task force. But if the task force is going to identify new funding sources, “It still appears to be a tax on somebody - it’s just a smaller target,” he said. Task force Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “Frankly, it wasn’t my idea to make the transfer the way it’s done.” But, he said, “The way I read the task force requirements, our job is not to find a funding source for transportation. … That ship has sailed. Our job is to sort of fill the hole that was created last year.”

Crimmins suggested perhaps tapping the sales taxes that are paid on boats and other off-road vehicles and their parts and accessories to replace the trails funding, but Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, noted that those sales tax proceeds now go to the state’s general fund - so the result would be tapping the general fund. “There’s already a shortfall,” he said. “I guess that’s the old adage of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Crimmins said, “If the Legislature chooses not to increase taxes, which is what they did, and now they appoint a committee of eight folks to find a way to increase taxes on a smaller group of folks, that seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous.”

Crimmins was followed by four other off-road recreation enthusiasts. Sandra Mitchell of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association told the panel Idahoans treasure their recreational use of public lands, and it boosts not only their qualify of life but also the state’s economy. “They took away timber for the most part, they took away mining, but what they left was recreation,” the former staffer for then U.S. Sen. Steve Symms told the task force. Recreationists are proud, she said, that “we pay our own way,” in part through the gas tax. “We believe it is a fair and equitable use of fuel tax that’s burned off-road.” Karen Crosby of the Idaho Recreation Council warned that the funds now provide matching money for federal grants that have paid for recreational trails all over the state.

Recreationists: ‘We want our gas tax back!’

Recreationists were there in force at today’s legislative task force meeting, many wearing specially printed-up name tags that said in bright red above their names, “Hello,” and below their names, “I WANT MY GAS TAX BACK.” The Idaho Recreation Council printed them up, said Wendy Coome of the Back Country Horsemen, along with bumper stickers to match - and she promised there’ll be plenty of them seen around the state. Speaking on behalf of “the equine users of the back country,” Coome told the panel that several years ago, horse groups proposed legislation to impose a tax on horse trailers to fund equestrian trails. “We were shot down,” she said. “We were offering you a source of funding, and it never made it out of committee. Somebody might want to go back and look at that again.” She said the bill had an agricultural exemption, but the Idaho Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association opposed it anyway. “We had a majority of all the horse groups behind us,” she said.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said he’d like to take a look at that proposal right away.

Labrador: ‘I’m not sure what we’re doing here’

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, spoke out sharply after Sen. Dean Cameron’s opening remarks at a legislative task force meeting this morning, objecting to Cameron’s statements that the task force can’t simply shift funding for state parks and the Idaho State Police to the general fund when the agencies lose gas tax funding in a year. “I am troubled by your statements,” Labrador told Cameron. “It sounds like you’ve already decided what we’re going to do, so I’m not sure what we’re doing here.” Cameron said, “I apologize that you’re troubled,” but said he was relying on the wording of the legislation that created the panel. It instructs the panel to identify “dedicated” funding, which Cameron, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, noted is budgetary “vernacular” for money that doesn’t come from the state’s general fund.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that if we’re unsuccessful, that does put the pressure on the general fund,” Cameron told Labrador, adding that he sees it as the panel’s job to avoid that. “I have no preconceived notions as to where that alternative funding source should come from,” Cameron said. “You will hear a presentation from the state police on some ideas they have. … They haven’t been investigated fully yet.” Cameron said today’s meeting should “lay a foundation” for the panel’s deliberations. “Does that give you any further ease, representative?” he asked Labrador. “I will listen to the presentation,” Labrador responded.

‘Will mean that this task force has failed’

As the Legislative Task Force that’s charged with finding new funding sources for state parks and the Idaho State Police to replace gas taxes they’ll lose one year from tomorrow began its first meeting this morning, Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the joint House-Senate panel that they must find money that’ll be available “on an ongoing basis,” which he called “a key phrase.” “It is not for us to come up with one-time money,” he told the lawmakers on the panel. The group also can’t turn back the clock to undo this year’s Legislature’s decision to shift the gas tax money away from the two agencies, he said. “That’s really not an option for us. Nor is it an option for us to shift responsibility to the general fund.” If the general fund must fill the gap, he said, “it will mean that this task force has failed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to work on failed task forces. I want to find a solution.”

Laid-off Mac user in Idaho? You’re out of luck…

Idaho unemployment claims are running at high volume, with 45,000 active claims as of June 12, thanks to the economic downturn and widespread layoffs, including those in the high-tech sector. Here’s an oddity, though: 60 percent of jobless claims in the first quarter of this year were filed online, as opposed to in-person, the only other choice for initial claims. But the state Department of Labor’s online filing service can be accessed only with Internet Explorer 7. That leaves out those who’ve updated their browsers to the new Internet Explorer 8 (Labor spokesman Bob Fick says a work-around for IE 8 users should be ready “within a couple of weeks”), and, of course, anyone who uses a Mac.

“What we have was developed 15 years ago,” Fick said. At that time, he said, it was determined that only the Microsoft browser could handle a secure session that might stop midway through, then restart later, without the user having to start from scratch inputting data. When the system first was developed, Fick said, 97 percent of users had Internet Explorer. “Now, only about 80 to 85 percent of the people have it,” he said. The department’s tech people are now looking at Firefox and Safari to see what adaptations might be necessary in the online claim-filing system to make it compatible with those browsers. “It’ll be within a year that they’ll have it fixed,” Fick said. “As far as the complaints, there hasn’t been any increase or decrease in complaints. There have been Mac users that have complained all along they can’t get in. Fixing it is a question of money, and of time.”

Wounded grizzly could be on the loose in Idaho…

It pretty much doesn’t get more wild than this when it comes to a press release from Fish & Game: There could be a wounded grizzly on the loose near Harriman State Park, where early Sunday morning, three Idaho black-bear hunters “were unpleasantly surprised after their hounds surrounded a female grizzly with cubs.”

Reports Idaho Fish & Game, “The bear took after the hunters, knocked down Keith Klingler, bit him on the right arm and tossed him around.” While the bear was on top of the hunter, his brother struggled to get his revolver out of a backpack and fired - at which the bear let go, got up and ran off.  “We don’t know whether the bear was hit, if we have a wounded bear, a dead bear or an unharmed bear,” said John Hanson, Idaho Fish and Game regional conservation officer from St. Anthony. They’re running DNA tests on the wounded man’s clothing to match against a database of known Greater Yellowstone grizzlies - that’s right, there is one. Click below to read the full release.

When health insurance is priced out of reach

Young Idaho mom Amanda Buchanan picked up an old copy of “Consumer Reports” in her local library in Weiser and began leafing through it last year, and saw a call for health care stories that people wanted to share. She had just the thing. Now, the magazine’s “Cover America Tour” project has made the young, uninsured Idaho mom the face of health care challenges in Idaho - and she’s hosting a letter-writing event for health care reform today at Boise’s Municipal Park. Consumer Reports suggested it as a way to do something about the problem, she explained; she’s by the big, yellow banners that say “Write a Letter for Health Care Reform,” and is scheduled to be there until 5.

Amanda and husband Jason Vlcek wanted to have a second child, but adding the family to his insurance coverage at work - he’s an elementary school teacher - would cost the young family $820 a month in premiums, 34 percent of their household income. They couldn’t afford it. “It got to the point where the insurance was just too high - it was eating into our basic needs,” Buchanan said. She wondered if they could afford to have a second child.

A private policy for Amanda cost less, but carried an additional $5,000 maternity deductible.  They decided on a plan: She’d buy private insurance, but after the baby was born, she’d cancel hers, and use that money to pay down her medical debt, while purchasing a separate private policy just for the new baby. Meanwhile, Jason’s school district began offering a “catastrophic” insurance plan, with a $3,000 deductible, after which only 50 percent of costs are paid. They signed Jason and toddler son Kwei up. “I just wasn’t going to leave him uninsured,” she said, watching the active 2-year-old toddle around the park. New baby Merin is now six months old.

State Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a physician and the House minority leader, said when lawmakers commissioned a study of the uninsured in Idaho, “It’s just these people - young, employed. … typically young people, who were working but just couldn’t afford it.” The 2007 study showed 18 percent of Idaho’s non-elderly population uninsured, but much higher figures for young adults - 38 percent for those age 18 to 24, and 28 percent for those age 25 to 34; it also showed that 60 percent of Idaho’s uninsured adults are employed.

Amanda knows she’s taking a risk, and it concerns her. But she and her family also are healthy - aside from giving birth, she’s never been admitted to a hospital, and hasn’t gone to the doctor since 2004. “The fact is, the cost of decent insurance cripples my family financially,” she said.

Otter: ‘Idaho is weathering this storm’

Gov. Butch Otter says there are some bright spots in Idaho’s current economic downturn, including an Idaho Air National Guard project at Gowen Field that’s restoring 57 jobs, a 16-employee manufacturing firm moving from Spokane to Post Falls, and an expansion in ammunition manufacturing in Lewiston. “Many people are working behind the scenes, helping our companies and communities recover and prosper,” the governor wrote in an op-ed piece. “None of that lessens the very real challenges still facing many Idahoans right now, but I hope it offers some hope that we are on the right track.” Click below to read the governor’s article.

A political question? Or a factual one?

Idaho wants to know whether owners of heavy trucks and cars are paying their fair share for roads. A previous study on the subject suggested heavy trucks underpay and owners of cars and pickups pay too much in transportation fees and taxes. But problems with data that suggested the study might not be valid prompted the state transportation director to scrap it in 2007. This time, Idaho will follow the examples of other states, using new Federal Highway Administration methodology that recently worked well for Nevada and appointing an advisory committee from all sides to oversee the study, as Oregon did.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said he’s all for that. “You’ve got to have those folks sitting at the table,” he said. “Even if they believe they’re being in one way or another knocked out of balance … they should all be considered, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that information.” In Oregon, the question of whether cars and trucks paid their fair share became so political that voters in 1999 amended the state constitution to require highway cost allocation studies every two years, with the Legislature tasked to adjust taxes or fees based on the results to keep things equitable. Oregon state economist Tom Potiowsky said the system has worked well there, where representatives of the state’s trucking association, the AAA, counties and experts serve on an advisory committee to oversee the study; he chairs the panel. The committee can’t change the results, which are developed by an outside consultant.

“You have the stakeholders in the room together, they’re seeing how the sausage is made, and they have input based on their opinions,” Potiowsky said. “They understand they are only advisory, but I think it makes for a richer outcome. Over time, it has reduced the politics.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

New Smith poll: Idahoans high on Risch, Crapo, Simpson and Minnick - less so on Otter

Idaho pollster Greg Smith today released results of a new poll, conducted June 15-18 of 400 randomly selected Idahoans 18 or older, and found that U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressmen Walt Minnick and Mike Simpson all are seen much more favorably by Idahoans than unfavorably. Gov. Butch Otter, while also ranked favorably by nearly half of Idahoans, was viewed unfavorably by 35 percent.

Here are the numbers: Crapo, 59 percent favorable, 17 percent unfavorable; Risch, 49 percent favorable, 19 percent unfavorable; Minnick, 47 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable; Simpson, 56 percent favorable, 8 percent unfavorable. For Otter, the comparable figures were 47 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable.

A rerun of this year’s legislative session, this time in 2011?

Longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby says Gov. Butch Otter’s decision to have his transportation funding task force present its recommendations in December 2010 - a year and a half from now - could lead to a rerun of this year’s difficult legislative session in 2011. In November of 2010, every seat in the Legislature is up for election.

“I’m surprised,” said Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University. “What I heard during this legislative session was the importance to address the maintenance need as a public safety issue. It’s interesting to me that this is deferred until just a month after the election. It would seem to me to make more sense, maybe not politically, when you’re talking about raising taxes, but in terms of public safety and addressing our deteriorating roads, that those issues be laid on the table and discussed during the campaign, before candidates again, as they did in the last election, lock themselves into a position of opposing any tax increase. … It seems to me it has the potential of a rerun of the session we just had.”

Otter’s transportation funding task force won’t report ‘til 2011 session

Gov. Butch Otter today named his task force to find solutions for transportation funding in Idaho - but said they’ll bring their recommendations forward in December of 2010. That means nothing for the next legislative session - the election-year session that starts in January of 2010. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do,” Otter said when asked about the time frame. “That gives them plenty of time.” The 15-member task force, he said, is “not going to hurry into anything - all options are on the table.” Asked if his announcement means he won’t be proposing transportation funding legislation - tax or fee increases - next year as he did this year, Otter said, “It doesn’t mean I will, and doesn’t mean I won’t.” He said lawmakers “made a good point” when they complained that transportation already was getting lots of funding this year, between the big investments from the federal economic stimulus and GARVEE bonding. “Perhaps we have enough money for a while,” Otter said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, who joined Otter in answering reporters’ questions after the groundbreaking ceremony today for the 10-Mile Interchange on I-84 in Meridian, said, “The task force the governor put together is not a one-year or a two-year look at transportation in Idaho - it’s looking into the future. So hopefully we take the time to do it right.”

Otter noted that a legislative task force looking into replacement funding for gas taxes that now go to fund the Idaho State Police and parks and recreation could well propose legislation next year. Here’s the governor’s 15-member task force: It’ll be chaired by Lt. Gov. Brad Little. Members will include McGee; House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby; Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson; Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello; Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot; Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls; Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise; Idaho PUC Chairman Jim Kempton; Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Mark Bowen; Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank; and Intermountain Forest Association President Jim Riley.

Smith poll: Idahoans unexcited about Obama

Idaho pollster Greg Smith today released results of a new statewide poll that showed that Idahoans are less favorable toward President Barack Obama than the nation, but they don’t feel all that strongly about it. The poll, which queried randomly selected 400 Idahoans 18 and older from June 15-18, also found that 53.8 percent of Idahoans feel the state is going in the right direction. Tomorrow, he’ll release results looking at Idahoans’ perceptions of Gov. Butch Otter and the state’s four-member congressional delegation. Click below for today’s results.

Do cars and pickups pay too much, heavy trucks too little? 2007 study said so, but was never finalized

As Idaho prepares to consider raising car or truck fees to address a huge shortfall in road funding, a 2007 state study that showed car and pickup owners pay more than their share and subsidize heavy trucks has languished, unfinalized. A copy of the study, obtained today by The Spokesman-Review under the Idaho Public Records Law, shows that since the previous study in 2002, a rough balance between cars and heavy trucks has tilted. “Autos and pickup users are overpaying about 10 percent, while all trucks are underpaying about 10 percent,” the study found.

Draft results from the $20,000 study were presented to the Idaho Transportation Board in October 2007, but shortly after that, Pam Lowe, Idaho Transportation Department director, decided to scrap it. Lowe said she didn’t hear from any interest groups objecting to it. Instead, she said she was concerned with statements in the study, prepared by Palouse Partners Inc. of Pullman, that suggested glitches between Idaho’s record-keeping system and the software used for the study could result in some inaccuracies. “My own consultant was saying it might not be valid,” Lowe said.

State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I was frustrated that they didn’t finalize that cost allocation study, because it really would have been helpful in the debate.” But Kathy Fowers, president of the Idaho Trucking Association, said, “We never really approved of that study. … A cost allocation study is only as good as the people who participate in it. It can be very political.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and see the draft study here.

More Idaho inmates back in state

Idaho’s Department of Correction says it’s now brought back another 68 inmates who had been housed out of state, in Sayre, Okla., bringing the state down to 120 out-of-state inmates, all of whom are now scheduled to be returned to Idaho by the end of the summer. The reason: Idaho’s prison population has actually dropped, which the department called “unprecedented.” At the start of the fiscal year, July 1, 2008, Idaho had 7,338 people incarcerated. Today, that figure is 7,270. State Corrections Director Brent Reinke said the decline comes because of “better coordination between the department and its criminal justice partners.” That means everything from more substance abuse treatment and more use of sanctions that serve as alternatives to prison time, to improvements in getting inmates the programming they need to qualify for parole by the time they reach their eligibility dates. “The return of these inmates is a reflection of how Idaho’s criminal justice system is working as a system,” Reinke said.

Also, additional prison space is being brought on line, including 628 new beds at the privately operated but state-owned Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.

Low bids on highway projects are saving millions for Idaho

Idaho is saving tens of millions because construction bids on its big federal stimulus-funded highway projects - including the Dover Bridge in North Idaho and the Vista Interchange in Boise - are coming in so far under budget. The result: Instead of just the eight big projects around the state that are planned, Idaho should be able to add to its list, and a North Idaho bottleneck on U.S. Highway 95 could benefit. “They are very competitive bids, extremely competitive,” said Jeff Stratten, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department. “Contractors are eager and hungry to go to work, and their bids are reflecting it.” Said ITD board member Jim Coleman, “We’re getting five or six bids in places that we would get one or two before.”

The low bid for the Dover Bridge replacement project alone came in $15.2 million below the original budget estimate. The Vista Interchange on I-84 came in a whopping $21.2 million below the estimate. So far, five of the eight stimulus-funded projects have gone to bid, and the apparent low bids total $40.9 million less than the original estimates; there are still three more projects to go to bid in the next few weeks. Dozens of highway projects around the state could vie for a share of the savings - including the two-mile gap that’s been left unfunded at the south end of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho. That long-planned four-lane highway will end two miles shy of the existing four-lane highway at Hayden, creating a potential two-lane, two-mile bottleneck.

“Believe me, when somebody finds out we have some money that hasn’t been allocated, there will be projects that people will want,” said Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. “They’re all good projects, they’re all needed projects.” When the board first looked at candidates for stimulus funding, he said, “We had $800 million worth of projects.” After all eight stimulus projects have gone to bid, the ITD staff will develop a recommendation on candidates for the leftover money, and the transportation board will begin discussing which ones to pick as soon as July.

Several factors led to the lower bids, including a drop in prices for commodities like oil, asphalt and steel worldwide since the budget estimates first were developed, and pent-up demand for work among contractors in the region due to the tough economy. For the Dover Bridge replacement, ITD received five bids, all from contractors in the region. The lowest was $21.6 million from Sletten Construction of Great Falls, Mont.; the highest was $23.6 million from another Great Falls firm. All five were far below the $36.8 million budget. For the Vista Interchange, ITD received six bids, with the lowest, $17.8 million, from Central Paving Co. of Boise. The highest was $21.2 million from Idaho Sand and Gravel of Nampa; all six were far below the budget of $39 million. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Sunset over Boise…

The unsettled weather that’s marked June in Boise so far this year has led to some dramatic sunsets, like this one on Friday night.

North Idaho freeway could include bottleneck

When the big Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on Highway 95 in North Idaho is completed, it may have a two-mile, two-lane bottleneck at its southern end before it reaches an existing four-lane highway at Hayden. The Idaho Transportation Board today reviewed an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion that found that the board can’t adjust the project’s southern boundary without specific authorization from the state Legislature. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, proposed such legislation this year, but it died at the last minute in an end-of-session tiff between the House and the Senate.

Darrell Manning, ITD board chairman, said the board wants to expand the project to “what we all thought was the original terminus, but the law didn’t say that.” Said board member Bruce Sweeney, “This whole thing is crazy to start with - that’s where that whole project should’ve started in the first place.” ITD board member Gary Blick said the issue shows the danger of letting political pressure from the Legislature influence the state transportation board. “If our highway (system) becomes a political plum, we could have these kinds of things all over the state,” he said. “The professionals agree that it should be done, and the Legislature doesn’t.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Initiative would let Idaho voters sign up for permanent absentee ballots

Backers of mail-in voting in Idaho have filed an initiative petition seeking to let Idaho voters put in a permanent request for an absentee ballot, rather than having to request one each election. Former Democratic congressional candidate Larry Grant, a board member of Idaho Vote by Mail Inc., said, “There are plenty of folks who need or prefer to vote by mail, but we are not asking that Idaho go to full voting by mail. The initiative simply provides that those folks who want or need to vote by absentee ballot don’t have to ask for one every time. It’s a good middle ground. Those who want it can do it. Those who don’t want to, don’t have to.”

Though Idaho’s county clerks have been supportive of mail-voting options, the Legislature has been unsupportive. If the proposed voter initiative gets the required signatures, it would go on the ballot in 2012 - not the next general election, but the one after. Click below to read the Idaho Vote by Mail Inc. news release about the proposed initiative.

No change at the top at ITD

The Idaho Transportation Board wrapped up a two-day board meeting this afternoon, which included two executive sessions on personnel issues, without taking any action. That means they’re not making any change in directors; ITD Director Pam Lowe, who drew political flak this legislative session as lawmakers tangled with the administration over transportation funding, has been rumored to be leaving repeatedly in the past few months, but none of those rumors panned out. Lowe was at today’s meeting, which closed with board members discussing a new Idaho Attorney General’s opinion that says they can’t extend the Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95 two miles at its south end without legislation. Such legislation was proposed this year, but failed to pass. If the project’s southern end isn’t extended, the new four-lane road would have a two-mile, two-lane bottleneck in its midst. “This is something we really messed up on and the Legislature messed up on,” said ITD board member Bruce Sweeney, “and we need to resurrect this. … It’s just stupidity, is what it is.”

Tweets chronicle State Board meeting

The State Board of Education is meeting today in Hailey, and thanks to spokesman Mark Browning’s “tweets” on Twitter.com, anyone can keep up on just what they’re doing. So far, Browning has reported that Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, presented his constitutional amendment to allow “tuition” to be charged at the U of I, rather than just “fees,” and the board unanimously endorsed the move; it’ll be on the ballot for voters to consider in the next general election. Also, that the board debated alcohol rules for pre-football game activities at universities, and that it voted to reappoint Larry Weeks to the Board of Library Commissioners. To see Browning’s tweets and track the progress of the board meeting, go to the Twitter.com page and enter IdSBOE in the search box on the right side.

Asked what prompted the Twitter approach, Browning said, “Board meetings for me are basically a juggling act. I have reporters that are on site, it’s in their area; I’ve got ‘em coming in by email, phone, or text. Everyone’s wondering where they’re at, where they are in the agenda. I’ve been looking for a way to put out, basically, a status update - here’s where we’re at.” Browning said he heard about Twitter when the Spokesman-Review used it as part of its reporting on the Joseph Duncan death penalty trial last fall. “I thought, ‘I wonder if that might work for a board meeting.’ ” After the crush of the legislative session, he said, “We just said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a whirl - and the price it right.’ I think, if we do it right, hopefully it’ll prove useful for folks.”

State controller to seek another term

Idaho state Controller Donna Jones is running for a second term in her post. In her announcement, Jones noted that she was the first woman elected to the office; earlier, as a six-term legislator, she was the first woman to chair the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. “Whenever you are the first to do anything people watch you pretty closely,” Jones said. “I am extremely proud of the fact that we have been able to cut budget, reduce staff, and save the taxpayers money during this first term.  My experience on House Rev and Tax and in the private sector has been a good training ground for me.” Jones, a Republican, is a former real estate broker and businesswoman, and former executive director of the Idaho Real Estate Commission. The election is in 2010.

Caine Center head relieved of duties

The University of Idaho announced today that as it continues its investigation into testimony by the head of its Caine Center for Veterinary Medicine that there’s no evidence of disease transmission from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep - despite research at the center showing such a link back to 1994 - it is relieving the director of all administrative duties at the center and from all work related to sheep and sheep-related diseases. Marie Bulgin, a professor of veterinary medicine, made the statements in testimony both to the 2009 Idaho Legislature and in federal court documents; she is a past president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. Lawmakers this year passed legislation protecting domestic sheep ranchers; that short-circuited a collaborative effort to balance interests between wild bighorns and domestic sheep. Click below to read the university’s full statement today.

New USFS chief started in Idaho

Tom Tidwell has been named chief of the U.S. Forest Service by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, replacing Gail Kimbell, who has headed the service since 2007. Tidwell, currently the head of the USFS Northern Region based in Missoula, started his career 32 years ago as a firefighter in Idaho, on the Boise National Forest. He’s since worked in eight different national forests, across three regions, and has worked at all levels of the agency including district ranger, forest supervisor, and legislative affairs specialist in Washington, D.C. Vilsack praised Tidwell’s “impressive track record of collaboration and problem-solving.”

Boise confab to address U.S.-Canada issues

The Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a consortium of state and provincial officials from the U.S. and Canada along with government and business leaders from both nations, will hold its 19th annual “summit” meeting in Boise this year, July 12-16, the first time the organization has held its annual conference here. Gov. Butch Otter announced the conference today, saying it’s a chance to work on economic issues and “also to trade a lot of ideas.” The conference will focus on clean energy technologies, it’ll include an animal health summit and an energy institute for state and provincial lawmakers, a roundtable of university presidents from throughout the region, and an array of cross-border discussions.

A 30-member host committee has raised $100,000 in the past six months to fund the conference from more than a dozen business sponsors, including Avista, Idaho Power, Monsanto, Qwest and Batelle Energy. Attorney and lobbyist Roy Eiguren, who co-chairs the host committee with former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, when asked how they managed to raise the money in such tough times, said, “People were generous, and we worked at it pretty hard. There’s a lot of interest in these bilateral issues.”

In our delegation’s words…

A new project that tracks word usage in the Congressional Record shows that the most-used word by our current senior senator, GOP Sen. Mike Crapo, in the past year was “energy,” followed by, in order, “Idahoans,” “stories,” and “prices.” For 2nd District GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, the top word was “Idaho,” followed by “research,” “account,” and “systems.” Does this tell us something of where their minds and efforts in Congress lie? The word sample is smaller for our two newest members of the delegation, but the top word for GOP Sen. Jim Risch is “guard,” followed by “equipment,” “billion” and “reserve.” For Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, the top word was “Idaho,” followed by “water,” “community” and “honor.”

And for the two members no longer serving, but still within the sample? Interestingly, the most-used word in the past year by both then-Sen. Larry Craig and then-Rep. Bill Sali was the same word: “Oil.” You can see the Sunlight Foundation’s project, “Capitol Words: Taking Congress at its word,” online here.

Be careful out there…

I returned today from my furlough/vacation of a week and a half to the troubling news that a third experienced adult bicyclist has been struck and killed on Boise-area roads, this time in a bike lane just blocks from my home. That’s three in a month. Be careful out there.

Among the political news items I missed while I was gone: Gov. Butch Otter was elected vice chairman of the Western Governors Association at their meeting last weekend, to serve under Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer; Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo met with U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and gave this account; state parks Director Bob Meinen stepped down from his post for health reasons; and Idaho House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, announced that he’ll run next year for the 1st Congressional District seat now held by Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, making Roberts the second Republican to announce; Vaughn Ward already is in the race. Still no word from former one-term GOP Rep. Bill Sali, whom Minnick defeated, on whether he’ll try for a comeback.

Meanwhile, the University of Idaho launched an investigation after media reports that the head of the UI Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center in Caldwell testified both to the state Legislature and in federal court documents that there’s no evidence bighorn sheep catch diseases from domestic sheep, though research at the center as far back as 1994 showed such a link; the director, Marie Bulgin, is a past president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, and the issue was a hot political one this year as lawmakers passed a law that short-circuited a collaborative effort between sheep ranchers and bighorn advocates. Here’s the university’s official statement:

“The University of Idaho is aware of media reports about professor of veterinary medicine Marie Bulgin’s comments on big horn sheep research and takes seriously concerns raised by those reports. A complete understanding of the facts is imperative and the university is investigating the matter thoroughly. Our scholarly and creative activity, which includes research, seeks to generate knowledge to strengthen the scientific, economic, cultural, social and legal foundations of an open, diverse and democratic society. The people of Idaho count on us to be fair, diligent and candid, and we place the utmost importance on that responsibility. The university will take appropriate steps to ensure the integrity of its research.”

A catch in the session-ending transportation funding deal…

More than 30 years ago, Idaho’s boaters, snowmobilers, dirt-bikers and ATV riders made a deal: They’d give up their gas tax refunds for gas burned off-road if the state would direct that tax money to trails, boat launches and the like. It worked. While farmers and log-truck drivers still get refunds for gas taxes paid on gas that actually gets burned off-road, off-road recreationists don’t, but they benefit from $4.8 million a year that goes to waterways improvements, off-road trails, park roads and bridges and search and rescue.

Now, however, a session-ending deal between lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter to divert that gas tax money to road maintenance has the recreationists steamed. “If they want to take that back, then give us the refunds back,” said Tom Crimmins, a Hayden Lake trails consultant and retired forester. And if the state needs more money for road work, he said, it should raise the gas tax. Crimmins spoke out at the last state Parks Board meeting in Boise, and motorized recreation groups around the state are organizing to oppose the funding deal. “There’s going to be some petition drives, we’ll probably have some bumper stickers and buttons,” Crimmins said. And when a special legislative task force starts meeting later this summer to address possible alternative funding sources for parks and for the Idaho State Police, which also would lose millions in gas tax funding a year from now under the deal, “We plan to be there en masse,” Crimmins said.

The recreationists are particularly upset because during this year’s legislative session, they successfully worked to raise their own ATV registration fees from $10 to $12 a year. The increase, which takes effect Jan. 1, will go half to law enforcement, and half to the state Department of Lands, to offset any damage caused by off-road recreation on state lands.

“I think they have a legitimate concern,” said state Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, one of eight members of the special legislative task force. Hammond said when he voted for the road deal, he wasn’t aware of the history behind the trail funding. “At that point in the session, you’re almost willing to vote for anything to get out of there,” he said. “Now we have to face the fact that we have some real issues that we created as a result of that, and we’ve got to fix it. It’s going to be tough.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review; the legislative task force holds its first meeting June 30.

Rammell: ‘The gall to criticize me…’

Gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell, who’s been in the news for his bankruptcy filing and court losses over fines regarding his former elk ranch, had his colorful campaign-emblazoned RV parked near the freeway just west of Boise for close to two weeks, prompting some speculation over whether the bus broke down or he was turning it into a billboard instead of a campaign vehicle. “It’s back in Rexburg now,” Rammell said today. “I’m going to do that this time - it’s going to be parked at various places around the state, just as a billboard.” He said he has to deal with his bankruptcy issues and taking care of his family these days, rather than campaign full-time, but still plans to drive the RV in parades this summer. Rammell also put out a statement this week saying he’s pushing on with his campaign despite his legal and financial problems.

“For all you who have the gall to criticize me for trying, I consider you as much of the problem as our corrupt government,” he declared. Click below to read his full statement.

Delays in store for boat stickers

New invasive species stickers that are now required on all boats that launch in Idaho, motorized or not, have sparked such demand that the state Parks Department is now reporting big delays in getting all the orders filled. “The sheer number of orders that IDPR is receiving is preventing the 7-10 day turnaround originally projected,” said Renee Iverson, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation registration manager. “IDPR is working diligently to process orders as quickly as possible.” The parks department has notified law enforcement about the delays, and people who have ordered stickers but not yet received them can show their receipts from online orders or copies of checks as proof that they’ve complied. The stickers cost $10 for boats registered in Idaho, $20 for those registered elsewhere, and $5 for non-motorized boats, which aren’t required to register. Only inflatables less than 10 feet long are exempt.

The stickers are meant to fund Idaho’s fight to keep invasive species including quagga and zebra mussels out of the state. Click below to read the full announcement from parks; click here to order a sticker.

Record unemployment for Idaho in May

The jobs news from May isn’t good - nearly 5,600 more Idaho workers lost their jobs, driving the May unemployment rate to a 22-year high of 7.8 percent. It’s a time of year when typically there are seasonal employment increases, and there were, but they were well below expected levels, according to the state Department of Labor. Construction payrolls saw their lowest April-to-May increase since 1990, and manufacturing jobs hit their lowest level since 1992. The seasonally adjusted May unemployment rate of 7.8 percent is up from 7 percent in April and 4.5 percent in May of 2008.

See-through building?

With all the thunderstorms and clouds floating around Boise this week, the weather has been changeable and mysterious. In this photo taken late yesterday afternoon, the sky appears to show right through this downtown high-rise, thanks to the reflections.

Legislative task force sets first meeting

The eight-member legislative task force that was created this year as part of a session-ending transportation funding deal between Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers has set its first meeting for June 30 at 10 a.m. at the Capitol Annex. The panel is charged with identifying alternative funding sources for the Idaho State Police and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, which are scheduled to lose millions in gas tax funding on July 1, 2010, with that gas tax money to instead shift to road work. Here’s who’s on the legislative panel: It will be co-chaired by Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the two lawmakers who also chair the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Task force members include Sens. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls; and Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello; and Reps. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry; Raul Labrador, R-Eagle; and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

A little lemonade from Chrysler troubles?

Fiat and the new Chrysler Group LLC will honor car buyers’ rights under Idaho’s “Lemon Law,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today, when the new company takes control of the auto maker.  That includes those who bought or leased their vehicles from the “old” Chrysler. “The continuation of consumers’ rights under Idaho’s Lemon Law is a significant issue that has arisen in the wake of the recent auto manufacturers’ bankruptcies,” Wasden said. “I commend Fiat and the new Chrysler Group for its willingness to protect the interests of Chrysler’s customers, and I hope similar considerations will be extended to General Motors’ customers.”

Under Idaho’s “Lemon Law,” consumers can get refunds or a replacement vehicle if a new car develops a significant problem that can’t be repaired after repeated attempts. Other states also have such laws; state attorneys general negotiated with the new Chrysler Group LLC to reach the agreement that lemon laws will be honored. The new Chrysler group will be owned by Fiat, the United Auto Workers, the United States and Canada, after the car manufacturer goes through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
 

Longer session led to fewer new laws…

This year’s legislative session , at 117 days, was the second-longest in state history, but resulted in the enactment of only 338 bills - the lowest number in the past 10 years. The highest number of bills enacted into law in the past 10 years was 459 in 2006, a session that ran 93 days. By some measures, this year’s numbers point to a lack of productivity; for a take on that, see an analysis here at the “Interstices” blog.

Developing new school standards - again

A decade-plus process that involved more than 375 volunteers putting in 35,000 volunteer hours, statewide public hearings, and lots more resulted in Idaho’s current “content standards” for public schools, which define what kids are supposed to learn in each grade, kindergarten through high school, in seven subject areas. The standards were implemented in 2005, and the Idaho Standards Achievement Test checks how kids are doing on the standards - passage is even required to graduate from high school. But today, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter announced a new process: Idaho will join 48 states and territories to develop “common core state standards” in language and math for grades K-12. The national effort, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is designed to eventually add a new “assessment,” or test, to see if kids meet the standards.
    
“This is a great opportunity for Idaho to work with other states across the nation to ensure our students are prepared to compete in the 21st Century,” Luna said in a news release today. “Idaho students are not just competing with students in Utah, Wyoming and Washington. They are competing with students in India, China and across the globe. It is our responsibility to make sure all Idaho students are prepared for the world that awaits them.” The new multistate standards will be “research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills.”

Melissa McGrath, Luna’s press secretary, said the idea is that Idaho will join the states developing the standards, then look at the result and decide if it wants to adopt them or not. “If we as a state decide to sign on to those, then we would need to align our standards, so that at least 85 percent of the Idaho standards met the national common core standards,” she said. “So that may entail revising the content standards, which we do every five years anyway. … It’s really just building upon what we currently have, and working with other states to see how our standards compare both nationally and internationally.”

When Idaho developed its standards, there was much emphasis on how they were Idaho-specific, rather than something determined by the feds. But Otter praised the new effort as one led by states. “This is a great example of states being the laboratories of the republic and taking the lead in addressing common challenges,” he said. “Education is a proper role of our state government and essential to ensuring citizens are prepared for the responsibilities of self-determination. Rigorous standards set the bar high for individual achievement and Idaho’s future.”

Could Idaho’s downturn ease in late 2009?

Idaho is one of five states where jobs likely will recover first as the recession eases - in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to a new report from Moody’s Economy.com and MSNBC. “If you want to be in the right place when the recovery starts, that place may be in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Texas or Washington,” writes reporter Bill Dedman at MSNBC. You can read his full report here.

Meanwhile, the state’s final revenue figures are in for April, and they’re not so good. “All five revenue categories were below expectations for the month, to the tune of a combined shortage of $47.2 million,” according to the latest Idaho Outlook from the state’s Division of Financial Management. “This brings the cumulative General Fund shortfall to a very disappointing $65.2 million.” Hardest hit was the individual income tax, which came in $21 million below target for the month, for a year-to-date lag below forecast of $45.4 million.

Study: Despite improvements, Idaho kids still going hungry

A new nationwide study of child hunger shows Idaho making two contradictory top-10 lists - one for the most improvement in rates of child hunger, and the other for being among the 10 worst for hungry kids under age 5. “We actually have improved from where we were - we were so bad,” said Kathy Gardner, director of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force. State Health and Welfare officials are “a little puzzled” by the conflicting results, said spokesman Tom Shanahan. “We don’t have a good answer for it. … We may have been a little behind the curve, and we’re headed in the right direction now.”

The study, “Feeding America: Child Food Insecurity in the United States,” looked at hunger rates for children by state. It compared data from 2005 through 2007 to earlier data, from 2003 to 2005. It also, for the first time, broke out data for children under age 5. Gardner said the improvements Idaho showed in the study fit in with several bright spots for the fight against hunger in the Gem State. Idaho’s food stamp program, which she called “the front-line program for childhood hunger and family hunger,” is rapidly expanding, and on Monday, dropped its asset test for one year - potentially making an entire new population of laid-off Idahoans eligible for help. “Everyone once in a while we do something that’s very progressive,” she said. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Fischer leaving Idaho

Christian activist Bryan Fischer announced today that he’s leaving Idaho to move to Tupelo, Miss. to host a talk show for the American Family Association. His Idaho Values Alliance, as a result, will “go into whisper mode on July 1,” Fischer said. Fischer, former pastor of Community Church of the Valley and a former Idaho State Senate chaplain (2001 session), has been a frequent sight at the Statehouse in recent years, in his alliance’s quest to make “Idaho the friendliest place in the world to raise a family.” The organization first backed the successful anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment; this year, he testified against day care licensing legislation, which passed; and in favor of a new conscience law for pharmacists to allow them to refuse to dispense prescriptions; that bill passed the House but died in the Senate. In his farewell message on his Web site, Fischer claims credit for defeating Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed gas tax increase, through helping organize “tea party” rallies in April and May that “helped to stave off a tax increase which would have harmed Idaho families.”

His move to Mississippi, he said, “represents a remarkable and unanticipated opportunity for me, an opportunity to do what I have done with the IVA on a larger scale.”

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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